Saturday, July 18, 2009

It appears all hope is not lost

[Warning: Longish post. Read at your own peril.]

There I was, on a flight from Bombay to Madras. Minding my own business. Energetically nodding off and lolling all over the place. Charmingly abusing the stewardess under my breath as she attempted to interest me in whatever pile of questionable edible matter they were passing off as a 'South Indian meal.' Politely jamming my elbow towards my neighbour to the right to assert my right over the armrest turf. And languidly shoving back the passenger in front of me who had made it his life mission to recline his suspiciously over-reclining seat all the way into my lap. A normal flight in every way.

You will notice I haven't mentioned the neighbour to my left. If you hadn't noticed, I'm sure you have now.

Let's jump back a bit. There's a little known fact about me that I will now throw at you under the assumption that you are at least mildly interested in learning more about me. I am an aisle man. In an airplane sense, not a wedding one. I prefer aisle seats because
  1. They give me room to stretch my legs
  2. They give me room to stretch my hands
  3. They give me easy access to passing trolleys, allowing me to pick up more than my fair share of chocolates, mints, nuts and alcohol
  4. They give me easy access to the stewardesses who, for the most part, are quite pretty (so I can ask for my share of stuff in point 3, of course; don't read this point in conjunction with point 2 above)
So, ordinarily, I would have only one immediate neighbour, given my preference for aisle seats. But that day was no ordinary day, as I was soon to find out. For starters, I was a little late for my flight (not, by itself, an extraordinary happening) and got stuck in a middle seat. I hate middle seats because of the sense of claustrophobia they induce. And all the general space-hogging on multiple fronts that makes you feel like a German in 1945 with the allies closing in on three fronts. Except that I'm the good guy here.

As is my wont, I digress. Let me list out the reasons I was in a less than sunny mood.
  1. I had just had a tiring and busy day of work, and was therefore rather grumpy to begin with.
  2. The middle seat (the only available seating at the time I checked in) did nothing to enhance my mood.
  3. Add to that the fact that the aircraft was miles away (at the International terminal) which meant a tiring and boring 20 minute bus ride to the plane, with two noisy kids jumping around me all the time (not mine, as far as I know).
  4. On the flight, the neighbour to my right was the aforementioned armrest hogger. A big burly man who spilled over the 25 inches or so of seat width that Airbus engineers had budgeted per passenger.
  5. The flight was one whole hour late on the ground, and the air conditioning seemed moody and wilful.
The one thing to be thankful for in all this was the neighbour to my left. Not so much the neighbour herself, but her level of interaction with me. Which was none at all. Perfect.

And, to begin with, she seemed content to keep it that way. We meddled with our respective in-flight entertainment systems. We gagged on our respective meals. We read our respective magazines. We slept in our respective seats. All in complete, blissful silence.

Is there's one lesson I have learned in life (and there are many, which I shall some day bore my grandchildren with a detailed exposition on), it is that good things seldom last. Consider vacations. Consider roadside chaat. Consider relationships. Consider stick-kulfi. Consider the ozone layer.

About 20 minutes from the end, just as I was beginning to hope we would make it through without conversation, she piped up.

"So, you live in Bombay?"

I turned to take a better look at her. She was, in many ways, the epitome of a Madras maami. Almost.
  • Neatly oiled, parted and plaited hair, partly silvered with a few strands beginning to rebel: check
  • Kumkumam and vibhuti in place: check
  • Spectacles and kindly yet shrewd eyes: check
  • Unmistakably maami-type saari: check
  • Welcoming and soft, "Kanna, tell me more about yourself" smile: check
  • Annoying stream of intensely personal questions: surprisingly, no
She seemed, on the whole, a fairly sweet and nice person. It appears all hope is not lost for maamidom.

Wait, that's not the end of the story.

"So, you live in Bombay?" she had asked.

Not particularly in the mood for conversation, I replied in as businesslike a voice as I could muster.

"No, I don't." Straight, simple, to the point. A clear-message-conveying kind of response, one would think.

"Oh, you live in Madras is it?"

"No, actually. I live in Delhi," I offered before she started listing cities.

"Oh, so nice. I also used to live there many years ago. Where do you stay in Delhi?"

"Actually, I stay in Gurgaon."

That stumped her. Delhi and its geography, the disappointed look on her face seemed to indicate, was a topic she was well acquainted with and well qualified to prattle on endlessly about. Gurgaon was a completely different kettle of fish vethai kozhambu altogether. She pressed on gamely.

"Nowadays I live in Madras, I shifted back some years ago. But my daughter is living in Bombay with her husband. He's working in a bank. She just had a baby, so I had gone there to help. My first grandchild! I spent a few months with her, and now am coming back home."

I was rather taken aback by the sudden flow of information.

"Errr... that's very nice. Congratulations." I went back to studiously examining an advertisement for some random product.

She realised I wasn't very forthcoming, and masterfully chose a different tack. And, to ensure that she would gain information, she switched to multiple-choice instead of Yes-No questions.

"So are you here on business or is your family here?"

I sighed, and resigned myself to the inquisition. Over the next ten minutes, I disclosed that I was indeed visiting family, that it had been three months since I last met them and that I lived in T. Nagar ("Oh, that's nice. I live in Saidapet"). Also that I was a consultant, and an MBA.

I could tell she was impressed. She looked me up and down, and her eyebrows rose a couple of millimeters in appreciation. Let me mention here that I was not, as is my customary practice, travelling shirtless to flaunt my sixpack. I was in full business suit, tie and all. I must have seemed to her a dotting figure (even I wouldn't go so far as to consider myself dashing).

And then, the question I had been expecting... and dreading.

"Are you married?"

I groaned inwardly. Her increasing interest in my life, education and work couldn't have had any other conclusion. Almost on cue, the plane landed with a loud bump and a prolonged rattling of all its moving parts.

"No, I'm not," I said. And, to drive the point home, added, "And I don't expect to marry for atleast a few more years."

It takes more than stern statements on disinclination to matrimony to daunt a seasoned maami, however agreeable she is as a person. She was silent for a few minutes as the routine welcome announcements were made. As the planed taxied towards the terminal, she pressed on.

"If you don't mind my asking, how old are you?"

I gritted my teeth. "Twenty five. So some time to go for marriage and all that."

Her face fell visibly. "Oh, you look like you are twenty seven or twenty eight..."

I grunted in a tone that was noncommital, but carried undertones of, "Huh, tough luck!"

The plane came to a halt.

"Actually, I have a niece. My brother's daughter. She lives here in Madras only. Very nice girl, well educated. We're looking for a match for her."

Passengers began to get up, unload their luggage and move towards the doors.

"You know, I was thinking..." she began.

I cut in, in a silky smooth manner. "Well, all the best... very nice to meet you. Bye!" And I strode out into the fresh air, savouring the taste of freedom.

In retrospect, the entire encounter had its moments of frustration, but was sprinkled with a fair bit of dark humour. She was a very nice, sweet lady, but the good old maami-ness just couldn't be held back beyond a point.

Nevertheless, it's comforting to know that unseen and unknown third party forces such as her are working in their mysterious ways towards actualizing my marriage. It appears all hope is not lost for me yet.